Creativity: Do you hate everything you write?

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When I ask a student to compose a short tune, I frequently hear, “I don’t think it’ll be any good.” Conventional wisdom is to encourage such a student: “Of course it will be good! You will come up with something great. Have confidence!” This, of course, is well-intentioned. After all, what teacher would not wish for his students to feel empowered?

However, this may actually cause more harm. Consider what happens immediately afterward: the student, feeling encouraged, makes another attempt at creativity…only for it to fail yet again. He is, again, unhappy with what he has composed. This has reinforced the idea that “it will not be any good,” and, even worse, it has damaged the trust he has placed in his teacher. If enough of these failed attempts occurs, they, like weeds in a garden, will begin to grow and choke out any remaining spark. They will form a psychology within the student that says, “You are not creative,” and this may continue for the rest of his life. Yet worse, the student may come to believe himself beyond the help of a teacher, which may lead him to give up creativity in the arts altogether.

How does one defeat this monster? How does one aid students who fear that they will not create anything good? How does one help students to create art that they are proud of?

Consider an archaeologist mentoring an apprentice. The apprentice says, “I’m excited for the dig, but I’m afraid I won’t dig up anything good.” The more experienced archaeologist says, “Oh, relax! You’ll dig up a valuable artifact on your first try, I’m sure. We will write an award-winning paper about it, and become world-famous.”

Such a scene, of course, is ridiculous. The more experienced archaeologist would more likely say, “You might not find anything valuable today. In fact, you probably won’t. We are digging in the dirt, so most of what you get will likely be just dirt.” In fact, such a conversation is unlikely to even take place. Any archaeologist, whether a beginner or a master, will know that the very first thing he touches will be dirt. He will likely touch a large amount of dirt, possibly for quite a long time, before finding even a fragment of something valuable. This is implied. No one even needs to ask.

And yet, with creativity in the arts, we are often quick to treat this differently. Students who fail to create a masterpiece on their first try believe they do not possess “the gift,” and they abandon their creative pursuits.

So, what do I tell students who fear that they will create something “bad”?

I tell them, “You probably will…and there is nothing wrong with that.” I tell them about the archaeologist, and how most of what he digs up is mere dirt. I tell them that they will forget about the dirt once they find an idea they do like. I tell them that their first few compositions are unlikely to be very good, but that they should persist nonetheless. I tell them to compose or improvise every day, whether they are proud of the result or not. I tell them that even the “great masters” did not compose great works one hundred percent of the time. Every composer has written a piece of which he is not proud. Every artist has painted a picture he dislikes. Every actor, dancer, or musician has given a lackluster performance. (In fact, a simple Internet search is likely to reveal many such performances. Viewing these can encourage a young student, as they see that experienced performers are still quite human.)

Some allow these failed attempts to define them. After experiencing such failures, they fear that they will never find anything valuable again. This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: if one stops digging in the dirt, of course he will never dig up anything valuable again!

But others do not. They feel discouraged, they may take a short break to clear their minds, they may refocus on certain aspects of their technique to fix problems – but, ultimately, they do persist. They wake up the next morning and write anyway. They show up at a dance rehearsal even though they are embarrassed. They audition for the next role even though they feel that they do not deserve it. They say, “That last performance was absolute dirt. I suppose I will just keep digging until I find something.”

And, eventually, they do find something. They recover their stride. They regain their confidence. They keep creating. And through this, they find a new freedom. They find that dirt is not merely an annoyance: it is an essential part of the process. After all, where is the creativity if the answers are simply given to us? Where is the fun in such a process?

Do you fear that your initial compositions will not be good? You are probably correct. Create them anyway. Do you think your first story will be confusing nonsense? It probably will be. Write it anyway. Do you believe that your first painting will have crooked lines, poor color choices, or unrealistic textures? It will likely exhibit all of those problems, and more. Paint it anyway. Create every day. Explore every day. Be always on the lookout for new ideas. Dig in the dirt. Enjoy the process in the same way that a child enjoys playing in a sandbox. Through this, you will discover the ideas that you do like. You will, in time, create something that you are proud of. Your technique will improve. Your imagination will awaken. You will grow in your understanding of your inner world, and in your ability to share it with others. You will be able to encourage others struggling with self-doubt from your own experience. And, in the life of an artist, there are few better teachers than experience.